“Cancer doesn’t discriminate. This also applies to your investigations.” Dr. Tanimola Martins explains to participants in the debate, which took place this Thursday at the London headquarters of Cancer Research UK (CRUK). Queen Letizia, Honorary President of the Spanish Association Against Cancer (AECC) and its scientific foundation, has traveled to the British capital to take part in the two organizations’ joint working day in preparation for the World Cancer Research Day (WCRD, in English) taking place next Sunday. “How is it possible that black men are much more likely to develop or die from prostate cancer than Asian men? We have already accumulated a wealth of evidence that cancer incidence, diagnosis, risk awareness, or treatment varies significantly depending on the patient’s age, race, socioeconomic status, or even the fact that he or she is a disabled person. And we know that’s wrong,” Martins, who develops the Black in Cancer study program for CRUK, questioned the prevalence of the disease in ethnic minorities.
The working day revolved around the theme proposed for the WCRD this year: integrating diversity, advancing research and achieving equity, but it also helped to influence once again the disaster that Brexit has caused for British scientific research and for Spanish researchers in the United Kingdom have meant . Also to celebrate the country’s reintegration into the EU research funding program Horizon Europe, which has clarified the professional future of many Spaniards in the UK.
“We are convinced that the only way to defeat cancer together is to attract the brightest and most diverse people to the research field who are able to contribute new ideas. And at the same time, ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, benefits from advances in the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of cancer,” defends Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK. “Here in the UK, for example, we have recognized the need to provide greater support for female scientists, researchers and doctors working at the most advanced levels of cancer research. Likewise, we identified a very small number of Black principal investigators,” says Mitchell.
And the direct connection between diversity in research and the interest in transferring this diversity to the needs of patients themselves has long been clear. The document, which CRUK presented to the British Parliament’s committee on fighting cancer in January 2022 and focused on the results of a study carried out between 2017 and 2018, already found that only 3% of postdoctoral researchers were at British universities (15,560 in total). black. And there were barely 85 professors of this race at the highest levels of higher education.
The lower the diversity in the scientific field, the narrower the range of ideas and research proposals supported. “It is now crucial for us to open up the studies even more to include greater age diversity – the big problem we have in Spain – but also ethnic diversity, with all the immigration that is arriving,” warns the scientific director of the institute foundation. the AECC, Marta Puyol. “We need to look at countries like the United Kingdom or the United States with very high levels of immigration and get our act together. In Spain, for example, cervical cancer was completely eradicated because the vaccine was widely used. But that’s not the case in South America, and suddenly there are a lot more cases of cervical cancer, something we thought had disappeared,” he adds.
Queen Letizia entered the debate with a question whose answers signaled hope and caution: What impact can the use of artificial intelligence have in this fight for greater integrity and diversity in the fight against cancer? No one doubts the immense possibilities of this tool, especially when it comes to collecting data that helps recognize diversity, but we must be careful with algorithms, warned some scientists, which can tend to reinforce biases and overshadow realities hide.
The Brexit record
“Each year, 18 million people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer and there are two main drivers of cancer research. One of these is the NIH (National Institutes of Health) in the United States, with whom we met last year, and Cancer Research UK, the European driving force. For us, all the projects in which we collaborate with CRUK are crucial,” says Ramón Reyes, President of the AECC. Both he and fellow believer Mitchell celebrated the UK’s reintegration into the Horizon Europe program while lamenting the damage caused by Brexit in recent years. “It brought with it an atmosphere of all kinds of uncertainty. Economic because it prevented access to programs and scholarships; personally, because you didn’t know what to do with your research career, whether you moved back to Europe or stayed in the UK; complete lack of clarity regarding visas for researchers or students; and there are far fewer Spanish researchers coming to the UK,” concludes Irene Echeverría, researcher in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Oxford and president of CERU (Society of Spanish Scientists in the UK).
“For me, rebuilding Horizon Europe meant, above all, the option to stay in the UK,” says Beatriz Salvador, who researches pancreatic cancer diagnosis at Cardiff University. “When this program disappeared from the map I really thought about going elsewhere as it was one of the main sources of funding in the UK. Many doors remained closed to us. Now I at least plan to stay for a few more years,” he adds.
Scientific research knows no borders and CRUK is the first to regret a Brexit that has drastically reduced its ability to attract the best researchers in Europe, as well as losing funding crucial to the global effort to tackle cancer meaning were.
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